Object lesson No 57

13th April 2001 at 01:00
General Han Hsin had a cunning plan. Warfare in China 2,200 years ago was a pretty basic art, but the general had a ruse to outwit his stubborn opponents. He would break the siege of the city by flying a kite over its fortifications, measuring the string, and digging a tunnel the corresponding length under the city's walls through which his troops would enter and conquer its inhabitants. And that, according to the first written record of kite-flying, is exactly what happened.

Buddhist priests thought it a more peaceful pastime, and when they took kites to Japan in the seventh century they (the kites, that is) quickly acquired a spiritual significance. Christened paper hawks, they were seen as conduits of the spirits and a link between the land and the heavens, flown by farmers to ensure a good harvest, from ships before they set sail and above houses to ward off evil spirits. Hundreds of symbolic animal designs evolved; large, rectangular and elaborately painted, they were only "brought to life" when the kitemaker finally painted in the eyes.

A hundred years ago, the popularity of kite-flying in Japan was at its height and huge constructions called wan wans were being flown. Up to 20 metres across, they were tethered with ships' chains and required more than 100 men to keep them under control. During the hinese cultural revolution in the 1960s - when kite-flying was strictly forbidden and anybody caught making one could be imprisoned for three years - enthusiasts kept their craft alive by flying miniature kites indoors, on the hot air rising from stoves.

In 1749, the Scottish meteorologist Alexander Wilson saw a useful application in the then popular children's plaything, sending a series of box kites into the sky to measure temperature at different altitudes. Three years later, in a reckless experiment, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite in a thunderstorm to prove to God-fearing folk that lightning was in fact an electrical phenomenon. In 1847, a ten-year-old boy, Homan Walsh, won a $10 prize after sending a kite across the Niagara Falls, establishing the link that enabled a bridge to be built between the United States and Canada.

Kites inspired the first manned flight - the Wright brothers' aircraft was based on the box kite design - but the development of aircraft saw it decommissioned from military and scientific use, and now it has a mainly recreational role.

New, ultra-light kite technology has spawned modern sports such as hang-gliding, sport parachuting and kite buggying, proving that the pulling power of the kite is undiminished. If you don't believe it, go fly one.

Harvey McGavin

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